Longform

The Big Queasy

Page 5 of 6

To reassure the public, Procter & Gamble has recruited its own posse of scientists and physicians. Two former secretaries of health and human services, Louis Sullivan and Otis Bowen, have become paid spokesmen for the product. Bowen is a medical doctor and former governor of Indiana, where Frito-Lay is now test marketing its Wow! potato chips made with olestra. (P&G has sold the rights to use olestra to several other snack-food companies, including Frito-Lay and Nabisco, and it works closely with those companies in promoting the additive.)

Other well-known public figures jumping on the olestra bandwagon include Elizabeth Whelan of the American Council on Science and Health, a trade group, and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Both Whelan and Ornstein have written newspaper columns defending olestra. Neither disclosed that their respective organizations had received substantial funding from Procter & Gamble.

P&G won't disclose how much it has spent to promote olestra. But trade publications estimate the company will shell out $5 million to $10 million in Columbus, Ohio, where it is now testing Pringles fat-free potato chips. The company hired a unit of Squier Knapp & Ochs, the Washington firm that made President Clinton's campaign commercials, to fashion its olestra advertising. It also enlisted Clinton's campaign pollsters to work on public relations.

Dee Bonner, a cartoonist for the tiny Shelbyville, Indiana News, discovered just what kind of public relations money can buy when he drew a cartoon earlier this spring. The panel showed a woman walking down the grocery aisle with her husband and a cart full of Wow! potato chips. "If you're buying those olestra products again, we're gonna need more diapers!" said her husband.

The day after the cartoon appeared, Bonner was stunned to receive a phone call from a high-level scientist at Procter & Gamble. "He was very upset with the cartoon," Bonner recalls. "He was very adamant on making sure I was fully briefed on olestra and understood what it was about. I thought it was a funny phone call."

The next day, says Bonner, he got a voice-mail message from a woman in Frito-Lay's public-relations office. "At first I thought it was people in my newsroom pulling my leg," he says. "But both Frito-Lay and Procter & Gamble found out about the cartoon because they have clipping services that follow any mention of olestra."

Bonner says the public-relations people were convinced he'd gotten his information from CSPI. "I said I'd never heard of that group," he adds. "Then they asked me where I'd gotten the information. I said from the warning label. They said that's an informational label, not a warning label."

The next week Bonner drew another cartoon. This time he put a dog in diapers and called him "Ole Lester," but he never heard from the corporate truth squad. The experience left Bonner shaking his head. "Interestingly enough, they deny they even have a public-relations machine," he says.

The commotion surrounding olestra's debut on America's dinner table often seems surreal. Even conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh has gotten into the act, praising the product on his show. "I never thought the day would come I'd really like Rush Limbaugh," gushed Procter & Gamble CEO John Pepper at the company's annual meeting last fall. "He made a fan out of me."

Last September CSPI pulled off a PR coup of its own. The consumer group trotted out the actor who portrayed the "Frito Kid" on television in the 1950s to denounce olestra at a Dallas press conference. Actor and songwriter Chris McCarty, whose father served as Frito-Lay's first vice president for advertising, dramatized his disgust with Frito-Lay's use of olestra by chopping up bags of Max potato and tortilla chips before the television cameras. The move was seen as an act of betrayal at Frito-Lay, where a statue of McCarty as the Frito Kid still stands in the lobby of the corporate headquarters.

But despite the uproar, Procter & Gamble is convinced there will be a strong demand for olestra. Kimbell says P&G has agreements with a dozen snack manufacturers and is building a factory near Cincinnati to manufacture enough olestra to satisfy America's craving for fake fat.

Whether olestra will do much to slim Ame-rica's waistline is another question. After the introduction of the sugar substitute Nutrasweet, the consumption of real sugar rose dramatically. And a study by a Drexel University nutritionist showed that people who reduced their fat intake by eating fat substitutes like olestra actually increased their overall intake of fat, since they still felt hungry after eating fat-free goodies and grabbed an extra cheeseburger to make up for it.

But when it comes to food, Americans like to think they can eat it and lose it at the same time. While P&G says it currently plans to use olestra only in chips and crackers, it's holding out the possibility of asking the FDA to approve the sale of olestra as a cooking oil. That means the day could come when French fries will be cooked in fake fat at your favorite greaseless spoon.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers